By Charlie Brennan Daily Camera, Boulder, Colo.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Colorado native Jessica Watkins is one of a 12-member 2017 astronaut candidate class selected out of a pool of more than 18,300 applicants. She and two others are at the youthful end of the cohort, at 29 years old.
Daily Camera, Boulder, Colo.
While one east Boulder County native is toiling for NASA about 250 miles above the Earth, a second from the same neck of the woods has been named as a member of the newest astronaut class.
Jessica Watkins, a 2006 graduate of Boulder's Fairview High School who calls Lafayette her hometown, is excited to be joining Louisville native Jack Fischer -- currently on board the International Space Station -- in advancing the nation's aspirations in space.
"I have always wanted to be an astronaut since I was young. And part of that, most of that, happened when I was in Boulder, actually," Watkins said.
"I benefited from, and am grateful for, the experiences and support and mentorship that I received during my education in Boulder. And I have taken that with me as I pursued planetary geology -- first at Stanford for my undergraduate, and then at UCLA for my graduate studies."
But the spark that could send Watkins out into the solar system someday was lit even before Fairview.
A native of Gaithersburg, Md. -- she and her family moved to Lafayette when she was in fifth grade -- Watkins still remembers an after-school enrichment program at the Judith A. Resnik Elementary School in Gaithersburg, named for the second American woman in space, who died in the 1986 Challenger disaster.
"I must have had a conversation with my parents about who she was, and her story, and was inspired by that, but that continued in middle school," said Watkins, who attended Louisville Middle School.
"I remember specifically working on a science fair project, building model rockets and testing them. And having fun with that experiment has stuck with me and encouraged me to pursue this passion."
She is well aware of the strong imprint that Colorado people, and the state's aerospace industry, are making on space.
Since 1962, 20 astronauts with some University of Colorado affiliation have flown 48 space missions, with 18 of those astronauts having connections to the Boulder campus.
"Absolutely, yes, there are definitely a few," said Watkins, citing Fischer, whom she has not yet met. "I think it's awesome. And growing up, I know Scott Carpenter Park in Boulder, and knowing about his story, the (CU) aerospace program and astronauts coming out of there, that helped get me there."
'Learning process' But Watkins never got to CU. She chose to head west to Stanford instead.
"CU was certainly in consideration," Watkins said. "One thing about college was just that I wanted to get out and have more, kind of better, diverse experiences. I spent quite a bit of time in Boulder and wanted to get out and see California -- but with the intention and hope of making my way back to Boulder."
But first, space awaits.
Watkins is one of a 12-member 2017 astronaut candidate class selected out of a pool of more than 18,300 applicants. She and two others are at the youthful end of the cohort, at 29 years old.
"It certainly is on the young side, and you are correct -- there are three of us that are 29 and I actually think I am the youngest of the three. We chatted this week and discovered that," Watkins said.
"But yes, it is certainly something that is an indication of the direction that NASA may want to go, in terms of the long-term goals of expanding our human presence in the solar system, including Mars potentially. And it is something that I am excited about contributing to."
According to NASA, the astronaut candidates will convene at the Johnson Space Center in Houston in August to begin two years of training. They could then be assigned to any of a variety of missions, including performing research on the ISS, launching from American soil on spacecraft built by commercial companies, or departing for deep space missions on NASA's new Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket.
Although she bears the label of astronaut "candidate," Watkins is a candidate with a darn good shot.
The upcoming training stint "is not something of a weeding-out type of process," she explained. "It is more of a learning process, where we learn a wide range of skill sets and have diverse experiences that will prepare us for space flight in the future. I think there have been a few astronaut candidates or astronauts who haven't flown for one reason for another. But it is not common."
The are multiple pushes underway to put men and women on Mars. The Orion mission is critical to NASA's effort to reach deep space, but the first unmanned flight of the Space Launch System that it will depend on is not set until late 2018. The first manned Orion flight will not be until at least 2021.
At the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico last September, Elon Musk, chief executive of SpaceX, unveiled plans for his Interplanetary Transport System to take colonists to Mars with trips to start as soon as 2024.
Watkins predicts success arising from the parallel government and private industry initiatives.
"I think the prospects of human footprints on Mars is bright and that's certainly the goal here at NASA and something that we have an amazing group of people and amazing team working toward. I have full confidence on that," she said.
"I think the important thing about the kind of critical point we're at -- where we're moving toward private industry as well as NASA having its own goal as well -- I think the combination of those two enterprises is going to be extremely beneficial to both sides.
NASA, with its expertise in space flights, has been doing it for a long time and doing it extremely well. And the private industry bringing its set of skills and enterprise as well, I think, is going to allow us to reach this extremely high set of goals for exploration that we set out."
Watkins believes there's no question that targeting a Mars landing is a worthy ambition.
"I think there are a few things about that, that are extremely important. The first is the scientific advantage of having human footprints on Mars. I think we can learn a lot by having humans, more efficiently, than rovers," said Watkins, who most recently has been a postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology, collaborating on the Mars rover Curiosity.
As Mars exploration potentially teaches humankind not only about the red planet but also, by extension, our own, she said it's important also "in the human aspect of the idea that working together as an international team of people with diverse experiences, scientists, engineers members of the military, that human exploration and human spaceflight in a lot of ways represents the best of humanity.
"And working together to accomplish that goal would be something that would bring us together as people." Watkins encourages young people -- particularly young girls -- to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
There are many positives to the path she is on. And right at the top of the list?
"I would have to say the people," Watkins said. "I have been blessed to meet so many amazing people who have supported and encouraged and inspired me. And I stand on their shoulders as I sit here today."